In December 2020, Giao Phan became the first Asian American Woman to serve as NAVSEA’s Executive Director.
In an exclusive interview with The Observer, Phan, who came to America as a Vietnamese refugee fleeing communism with her family, shared a few details on her career progression and about her life as an individual.
Q: You’ve been in the Senior Executive Service for over 13 years now. Can you tell us a bit about your background within the Federal Government?
PHAN: After graduating from high school, I started working for the Federal Government as part of a summer intern fellowship program with the Army. I did this for three summers and after graduating college, did not immediately enter the civil service as I still had not obtained my US Citizenship. I went into the private nuclear power industry, which gave me valuable experience that would carry over when, in 1984, I started my Navy career in NAVAIR’s Engineer and Scientist Development Program. After a couple of years, I entered the SEAWOLF program office, which looking back now, shaped the rest of my career. I was able to work for and learn from a series of great leaders, all of whom challenged me and allowed me to flourish and grow as a person.
In 1996, I applied and got selected into the Commander’s Development Program (CDP), a program that prepares promising employees for leadership positions through several rotational assignments. I learned about the varied disciplines that form the knowledge of any acquisition professional including Program Management, Business and Financial Management and contracting; developed my collaboration and interpersonal skills; and gained a better understanding of legislative and congressional matters, including the inner workings of the Pentagon.
After completing the CDP, I worked at the Office of Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (DASN) for C4I, DASN for Theater Combat Systems and DASN for Ships. I then accepted a position as Assistant Program Manager (APM) to oversee the $6B construction and delivery of the final ship to the NIMITZ Class (CVN 77). This job allowed me to work for and learn from then Capt. Tom Moore, who eventually became NAVSEA Commander. I subsequently served as Deputy Program Manager for PMS 312, where I was responsible for the maintenance and modernization of all in-service aircraft carriers.
Having overcome the challenges and felt the professional satisfaction from leading both a major ship acquisition and a major program office, I wanted to find the next opportunity. So with the support of my family as well as NAVSEA leaders, I applied for and ultimately got selected as the Coast Guard Deputy PEO/Deputy Director for Acquisition programs in 2007. This was my entrance into the Senior Executive Service. For six years, I worked with other senior leaders to develop and implement an acquisition program that addressed the Coast Guard’s immense need to recapitalize their aging ships, aircrafts, and infrastructure.
In 2013, I returned to the Navy as the PEO Carriers Executive Director. Delivering the USS GERALD FORD (CVN 78) — the first of a class and the technically-advanced aircraft carrier in the world – and the award of a Two-Ship Buy contract for CVN 80 and CVN 81 (the first contract of its kind in over 30 years) definitely were the highlights of my PEO Carriers tour. In 2019, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition (ASN(RD&A)) James “Hondo” Geurts, made a number of Flag Officer and SES realignments which provided me with an opportunity to serve as the Executive Director for SEA 21, Surface Ship Maintenance and Modernization Directorate and Deputy Commander for Navy Regional Maintenance Center. I had the acquisition experience with submarines and aircraft carriers, and it was my time in SEA 21 that rounded out my knowledge, skills, and abilities to the point where I felt I could apply to become the NAVSEA Executive Director.
Q: What was your very first leadership role? Can you share with us some of your inspirations for applying for that position? Was there a person or event whose path you’ve crossed that has led you to being where you are today? What/Who has inspired you to seek a career in naval leadership?
I had the benefit of being part of various development programs, including NAVAIR’s Engineers and Scientists Development program; DOD Executive Leadership Development (ELDP) program and NAVSEA Commander’s Development program.
For me, the DOD ELDP helped me to appreciate the challenges faced by our Armed Services and understand the importance of collaborative relationships between the military and civilian workforce in support of the warfighters. It was an amazing experience, and made me a believer in providing civilians with the opportunity to interact with the Fleet so we can connect with the warfighters and understand why our work is essential. Our sailors need us!
Towards the end of my one year tour in the DoD ELDP, our group had to develop a presentation for the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel Readiness. Imagine being in a group of mostly GS 12/13s and having to plan, prepare and conduct this brief to a very senior leader within the Department of Defense! There were about 50 of us in the program from all over: Navy, Army, IG, and all of the different services, living all over the United States and even Europe. We had to coordinate our different schedules to develop this presentation and because the group did not know any better, they designated me as the group leader. I was responsible for leading this diverse group of people to create and complete this presentation.
At the time, I had a young family with two kids at home and took on many job responsibilities. It was a difficult time and I was stressed. I went to my supervisor, Lionel Johnson, and had a really hard conversation with him about all the stress I was under. At one point I just blurted out, “I quit!” After letting me vent and express my frustration (including tears!), Mr. Johnson gave me the encouragement I needed to continue. His faith in me allowed me to develop the confidence in me and my capabilities. In the end, our entire group successfully did the presentation – and even I have to admit, it was good! Mr. Johnson’s calming leadership helped me build the confidence I needed in myself and stands, to me at least, as a great example of leadership and mentorship. He was a mentor to me then and is still a mentor to me today.
Later, during my time as Executive Director with CVN 78, we were responsible for delivering the USS GERALD FORD (CVN 78) to the Fleet. As we worked toward delivery, and for a first-of-class ship this is always a hard and grueling process, I remembered looking at our program leadership and seeing the same looks of distress on their faces that I experienced in the DoD ELDP. I drew from my experience with Lionel Johnson to make sure my people had the encouragement they needed to get over the finish line. Having gone through such a stressful time during the DoD ELDP, it allowed me to see it in others and then provide the support Mr. Johnson provided to me to my team.
Who knew that the development program and my mentor would have that much of a tremendous impact on me and, consequently, others?
Mr. Johnson was the first person I called after my family to tell that I got the job as NAVSEA Executive Director.
Q: You just stepped on deck here at NAVSEA, what has your first few months on the job look like?
My first thought was, “What an honor to be here!” Who would have imagined a refugee, born in Saigon, Vietnam could reach such a position within the United States Navy. It’s the true essence of the American dream!
When we fled Saigon in 1975, my father was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army at the time and stayed behind with his troops. My mother brought me and my seven siblings to America, and so our family was torn for quite a while. Every day apart from my father only increased the anticipation for when we would hear from him again. Weeks later, we received word that he had been safely airlifted from Vietnam onto the USS Midway, which was stationed in the Pacific. It turns out he escaped Vietnam the day Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. As the story goes, we also learned the helicopter my father and uncle were on heading to the ocean, hope to see American ships to land. The helo almost ran out of fuel. In all of the despair that he felt aboard the helicopter – being forced out of his country and with no word from his family – he says the first sighting of the USS Midway represented hope, freedom, and opportunity.
You might say my father’s experience on the USS Midway foreshadowed my career (and two of my siblings’ as well) with the US Navy. To that end, my focus has been towards repaying the United States for the opportunities they afforded me and my family. I feel very honored and privileged to continue my civil service as NAVSEA’s ED, working with the Navy’s best and brightest to Expand the Advantage for the best Country in this world.
Q: As the incoming NAVSEA Executive Director (ED), what are you looking forward to most about being in this position?
Giving back to our country by delivering the ships and systems our Sailors need to protect the homeland and ensure peace and democracy. Critical to that is working with Vice Adm. Galinis to execute NAVSEA Campaign Plan Expand the Advantage 3.0. Building and delivering combat power to the warfighters on time means delivering ship, submarines and systems on time and on cost. In this era of Great Power Competition, we need a deployable, reliable, and powerful Navy. This is my opportunity to help, both to help repay the United States for what it did for me and help ensure our forces are there when they’re needed now and in the future.
I also want to get after building our One NAVSEA workforce that enables all of our employees the ability to reach their full professional potential. I feel strongly about encouraging others to utilize the opportunities presented to us by serving our Navy and country. I feel that if I can do it, coming here with little money and not knowing how to speak English, anyone can make it here and be successful. I’d like to inspire and encourage the people and help our Admiral to build and develop a workforce that is more a reflection of what America truly is.
Q: You’ve served several years as the Senior Executive Champion for the Asian American Pacific Islander Employee Resource Group (AAPI ERG). Can you tell us about your work in this arena? How has that work been beneficial to your career so far? Do you plan to leverage off of experiences with the AAPI ERG in your new role as ED?
As the Senior Executive Champion for the AAPI ERG, I served as a mentor and resource to promote Asian American advancement in the Federal Government. While that was the organization’s primary mission, to me it was greater than that to include all minorities and women. I am forthcoming with my upbringing and the struggles we endured because I know many others are facing similar challenges. As I got to meet and hear the stories of others through the AAPI ERG, I was humbled by the individuals who told me they were inspired by my American dream, which in turn allowed them to see what was possible through perseverance, hard work, and a “can do” attitude. In my new role as ED, I want to continue my work with various diversity and inclusion initiatives especially during this time when we are all learning from each other.
Also, I would not be where I am today without the mentorship of leaders, including Lionel Johnson and Vice Admiral Moore, who helped me in my journey. I’ve taken that mentorship as a personal and professional obligation to pay it forward – especially as we understand that a diverse workforce means a diverse set of experiences and perspectives to Expand the Advantage.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to junior employees aspiring to be future NAVSEA leaders?
The three key points that I share with future aspiring leaders are:
1-Communication is key! Relaying proper messaging and the ability to communicate is important.
2-Mentorships. Mentors help you understand your strengths and weaknesses and they offer independent opinions. In addition to having a mentor, become a mentor! It’s mutually beneficial. Throughout the years I’ve learned a great deal from my mentees too.
3-Get out of your comfort zone; change jobs every 3-5 years. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable; being flexible and adaptable to changes. You have to keep up with the latest technologies in order to stay relevant, so be adaptable and flexible.
Now, I’d like to ask a few fun questions we’re hoping you’ll answer, mostly for readership smiles. Here goes …
Q: A few years ago, you exhibited some pretty stellar jump roping skills in the NAVSEA Atrium for a CFC fundraising event. When was the last time you’ve jumped rope? Is this one of your favorite exercise activities? If not, what is your favorite exercise?
I haven’t really jumped rope since then, but have an appreciation for how strenuous of a workout it can be. My favorite forms of exercise include running, swimming, and biking. A couple of years ago, we got a Peloton bike and I’ve been hooked ever since.
I’ve always been a very active person, and I think I got that from my Dad, who would routinely wake up early to exercise and try to get the rest of us to join him.
Q: The year 2020 has been full of ups and downs for most of us. Can you share with us any personal highlights from last year? What were some of your lessons learned this year that were like no other?
COVID has given us an opportunity to affirm that our employees are very flexible and adaptable to teleworking (and like it very much) while still being dedicated to the Navy mission. COVID forced us to accelerate our digital capability like the MS TEAMS video-conferencing. For an extrovert like me, it is a great way for our teams to connect.
On a personal note, the COVID environment has enabled me to run more marathons, which are conducted virtually. I’ve collected more bling, or medals, in the process! I signed up for the Chicago Marathon, ran it at home and got a medal. I also ran the Honolulu Marathon, got a medal, and didn’t have to fly to Hawaii to do it. With the virtual marathons, there’s no pressure to keep up with the thousands of runners around you. This allows me and my sister, who is my running buddy, to run at our own pace and do it for the enjoyment.
Q: What would you say your life motto is and why?
Recalling all the times that my life or a career move or event didn’t go as originally planned, but something better showed in its place, I’d definitely say my motto is: “When one door closes, another one opens.”
Q: Do you enjoy watching any sports? Is there any specific team that you prefer?
I like watching basketball and golf and the Washington Football Team. Of course I love Navy football and all sports played by my alma mater, Virginia Tech!